WASHINGTON — The Coast Guard has told oil giant BP that its proposed plan for containing the runaway Deepwater Horizon well does not take into account new higher estimates of how much oil is gushing into the Gulf of Mexico and demanded that the company provide a more aggressive plan within 48 hours.
In a letter dated Friday and released Saturday, Coast Guard Rear Adm. James A. Watson also said that BP was taking too much time to ready ships to capture oil spewing from the well.
"You indicate that some of the systems you have planned to deploy may take a month or more to bring online," Watson, who is the federal on-scene coordinator for the Deepwater Horizon disaster, wrote Doug Suttles, BP's chief operating officer. "Every effort must be expended to speed up the process."
The 48-hour deadline is the second the Coast Guard has given BP in the past week and indicates a growing recognition on the part of the Coast Guard that both BP and the Obama administration underestimated for weeks the amount of oil pouring from the well, which began leaking when an April 20 explosion shattered the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, killing 11 workers. The rig sank two days later, taking a mile of well pipeline with it.
For weeks, the Obama administration and BP said the spill was leaking 5,000 barrels a day — about 210,000 gallons. On May 27, a government task force of scientists revised that estimate to a minimum of 12,000 to 25,000 barrels a day, and possibly much more. Then on Thursday, the government doubled those estimates to between 20,000 and 50,000 barrels a day, saying those, too, may understate the size of the leak because a decision to shear off the well's riser pipe to add a "top hat" containment device may have unleashed more oil.
The intervention by the Coast Guard comes as the oil continues to spread across the Gulf. Alabama advised residents not to swim in areas near the Florida border and in the Mississippi Sound. An access route to the Inter-Coastal Waterway, the Pensacola Pass, was closed Saturday evening during flood tide until further notice to keep oil from entering the bay. And tar-ball fields detected in the Gulf appear to be headed toward the Florida Straits.
Watson said the new estimates were the reason for the new deadline, saying the plan Suttles outlined was only "consistent with previous flow rate estimates."
"Because those estimates have now been revised . . . it is clear that additional capacity is urgently needed," he said.
BP said it would respond to Watson's letter "as soon as possible."
The White House was asked Saturday what action it would take if BP doesn’t speed up its effort to containment.
”This isn’t open for discussion,” a senior administration official said. “BP must do better to plan a more aggressive response. In the same way we pushed for second relief well, additional redundancy, more transparency, paying for the berms, etc…we will push them to find better answers to contain the oil.”
The official, who asked not be named as a matter of policy, said the letter to BP was “a unanimous Obama team decision.”
BP and Coast Guard representatives have been meeting throughout the week, Coast Guard officials have said, to refine the plan, which Suttles outlined in a letter to Watson dated Wednesday — before the new flow rate estimates were released. In his letter, Suttles said the plan had been outlined on Tuesday to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Energy Secretary Steven Chu. "No objections were raised," he wrote.
Under that proposal, BP outlined two phases — a temporary one involving three recovery ships and a jury-rigged system combining the "top hat" containment device with hoses already in place from the "top kill" procedure that failed to stanch the well last month, and a more permanent one that involves construction of two new risers from the well that would be serviced by two large recovery ships that are en route to the site now.
BP said that the temporary phase would bring the amount of oil captured to 20,000 to 28,000 barrels a day by the end of next week. Most of that oil would be recovered by the Discoverer Enterprise drilling ship, which has been collecting around its stated 15,000-barrels-per-day capacity through the "top hat" but that Coast Guard officials believe can be pushed to 18,000 barrels a day. The remaining 5,000 to 10,000 barrels per day would be taken up by a second vessel, the Q4000 drilling platform, which would burn the oil in a rarely used, if not unprecedented, procedure. BP vice president Kent Wells said Friday that burning could begin as soon as Monday.
The burning idea has provoked some experts to raise questions about the health and environmental effects of the process.
Containment capacity would be pushed further during the temporary phase by the addition of a third vessel, the drill ship Discoverer Clear Leader, which would take on an additional 5,000 to 10,000 barrels a day when it is operational in mid July, Suttle wrote.
In the second, more permanent phase, Suttles said BP was building two permanent floating risers to provide oil to the Toisa Pisces and the Helix Producer recovery ships. Each riser takes about a month to complete, Suttles said. One is expected to be finished next week. Work on the second began Monday, June 7. Once operational, the new risers and ships would have capacity to receive between 40,000 and 50,000 barrels per day, BP said.
The plan foresees both the Q4000 and the Discoverer Clear Leader discontinuing operations once the new floating risers are operational, but says the Discoverer Enterprise would remain on site and could provide additional capacity, if needed.
In offering an estimate of the total capacity of the temporary phase, BP's plan is more cautious than numbers Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen used in press briefings with reporters. On Friday, Allen said capacity would reach 38,000 barrels a day once the Discoverer Clear Leader is operational.
BP's numbers may be more realistic, however. While Allen has said that the Discoverer Enterprise could be pushed to receive 18,000 barrels per day, the actual amount it's recovered has declined by a few hundred barrels since it peaked at 15,800 barrels on Wednesday. On Thursday, the ship recovered 15,400 barrels and on Friday, it recovered 15,500 barrels, BP reported Saturday.
How much oil will flow to the Q4000 and the Discoverer Clear Leader is also uncertain. Neither vessel will be "pumping" the oil up from the sea, but instead will rely on the oil's natural pressure to push it up through hoses that were originally used to push drilling mud into the well's dysfunctional blowout preventer during the "top kill" effort. Based on the size of the hoses, the maximum amount likely to flow through to those ships would be 10,000 barrels per day, but could be less, depending on the oil reservoir's pressure.
Both Suttles and Wells warned that there could be additional delays in the plans because of adverse weather and conditions at the drill site, which officials describe as crowded with dozens of ships.
It was also unclear how soon additional equipment could be made available. The Q4000 was under contract to another oil company and only began working the Deepwater Horizon spill after that company agreed to release it. A tanker that will work with the Toisa Pisces to shuttle the captured oil ashore, the Loch Rannoch, is available because BP has shut down for maintenance the North Sea well it was working, oil industry publications said. BP on Friday had yet to identify a second tanker needed to work with the Helix Producer. Saturday, BP said that ship would be the Evi Knutsen.